If At First You Don’t Succeed

Strange times we are living in, folks. When I finished converting our home office into a studio earlier this year, I would never have predicted the first thing I would create in my “new” space would be a stack of fabric face-masks. I had a newly organized workspace, a vintage work desk (thanks to my sister) I had just refinished, a new overhead light and actual access to things I hadn’t been able to properly reach in years.

Better-organized studio and a large bin of mask making fabric

While original plans this year included starting a new and quite large oil pastel piece, the unexpected appearance of Covid-19 means some projects will be completed a little later than anticipated. And that’s ok, if I can be helping out in the meanwhile. I’m painfully slow at this mask-making project, but I did manage to outfit my immediate family and make a few more before running out of bias tape, then elastic. Elastic hasn’t been available for weeks. Fabric ties are simple enough to make, so that will be my next step to finish this batch.

repurposing my kerchief collection from the mid 2000s

My last art project before all this, was a simple enough subject. I wanted to try my hand at soft pastel, since I had enjoyed it so much while creating this piece (shown below, from a box of old pastels given by an artist friend):

“Five Swans”, soft pastel on paper


It was a blast to create and easy to blend with this dusty, chalk-like material. Since this first try came easily to me, I assumed I would have a similar experience a second time around. (I know, I should know better than to assume anything). I started working off of this reference photo I’d taken of a cricket on a squash blossom.

print with corresponding soft pastel palette

The pastels I’d used previously were a limited palette of browns, so I bought a larger new set. Right off the bat these proved themselves to be cheaply made–scratchy, hard, removing pigment as quickly as they applied it. I scrapped my first try and bought a “better” (more expensive) set. These were much better. However, it seemed the longer I worked at rendering the cricket’s surroundings, the more the medium seemed to be fighting me every step of the way. I managed to finish about a six inch block of work before giving up on it. I trimmed it down to the finished bit, and went ahead and framed it anyway.

“Small Perspective”, 5×7″, soft pastel on paper

It’s not a bad little piece, but I definitely need more practice, paper made for pastels, and a high-quality set of soft pastels before I attempt finished work in this medium again. I still had some curiosity about what a larger finished picture of this cricket would look like, so I tried again, in my favorite medium: oil pastel. I got many hours into the background before I finally cut my losses. Not only was I missing a crucial shade of lime green, but I was in danger of seriously overworking the background in an attempt to get a “soft-focus” look. I took the whole thing and stuffed it into the trash, with very little regret.

Even a scrapped piece is a great learning opportunity. I got to try out a wash with mineral spirits, and I got to try a new texturing technique which was very satisfying.

Loving the textures I can get with these oil pastels

One thing I’ve learned in the last couple of years is to know when to push through a rough patch and when to quit while I’m behind. I used to just force my way to finishing a piece, whether it looked good or not, because I didn’t want to waste the time and materials I’d invested in it. Now when I hit a big snag, I evaluate my work so far to determine if trying to finish the piece is really the best course of action. The best way for me to know the difference is how I feel about what I have so far (provided it’s not a commission, which I would finish regardless of my mood! ).

Here are some questions I ask myself:

  1. What am I hoping to accomplish with this piece?
  2. Am I “fighting” the medium/trying too hard to force the results I want?
  3. Do I look forward to the next time I work on this piece, or am I dreading it?
  4. Am I overthinking and/or overworking the same spot over and over?
  5. Do I feel encouraged to try again after taking a break of a few days, or do I quickly get frustrated again?
  6. Am I obsessed with finishing it, but not really enjoying the process at all?
  7. Would I be sad, or relieved, if this project were suddenly destroyed?

These questions also work with other creative endeavors, including writing. If at first you don’t succeed, do try again. Sometimes you simply need an even longer break from your work.

But when all else fails, revisit what your goal is with your project. Practice? An entry in a competition? A personal challenge you’ve set for yourself? Will continuing this project help you reach that goal or frustrate you further? Give your work an evaluation before you invest too much into trying to finish a project you hate. Sometimes your energy would be best spent on something else entirely.

Til next time–Over and out, and stay safe at home!

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